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What makes Gronk as great as he is? Even he doesn't know the answer

CHANDLER, Ariz. –  One of the first things people say about Rob Gronkowski is that he likes to party, which is weird because there are a few hundred million people in this world who like to party. There is only one Gronk. He is that rarest of athletes, a freak in a league of freaks, so talented that even his fellow players, who are among the finest athletes in the country, can’t believe what they are seeing.

For fun, Gronk performs miracles. That is how fellow tight end Michael Hoomanawanui describes it: “He does miraculous things … on a daily basis.” Sometimes it will be an absurd one-handed catch in a game. Sometimes he will bounce off a defender, or make a defender bounce off him, in practice. He mauls linebackers, outruns cornerbacks, and catches passes with safeties dangling from him like earrings.

Then his teammates will ask: Gronk, how did you do that?

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And Gronk will say: I don’t know.

This is part of his appeal, right? Gronk is Everyman. Gronk is an outsized character who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Gronk is as important to his team as any non-quarterback in the NFL, but acts like he wouldn’t cut in front of you in the keg line. So when teammates ask about his daily miracles, he chooses not to talk about them, so he doesn’t sound like an egomaniac. How sweet.

Except … well, I asked Hoomanawanui, and he said: “No, I legitimately think he doesn’t know how he does it.”

* * *

Where does greatness come from? It’s a tough question, and this is one of the reasons we can’t resist sports. You look at Gronkowski now and you see a football player who is so obviously great. But even in this age of analytics and film breakdowns, there is still a bit of mystery to just how he does it.

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When he came out of the University of Arizona, Gronkowski went to the NFL Draft Combine, where he was measured, weighed, interrogated, pickled and brined like all the other draft prospects.  At 6-foot-6, he was an inch taller than Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan. At 264 pounds, he weighed more than San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan. There were hints and indications he could be a star.

“For a guy to be that big, that fast, that strong, it’s really … it’s not right,” Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo says.

And yet … Gronkowski was the 42nd pick in that draft. He was chosen 34 picks after Rolando McClain, who would be arrested three times in 16 months and quit football at 23 before resurrecting his career with the Cowboys. His current offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, picked Tim Tebow 17 spots ahead of Gronkowski. The Patriots chose Devin McCourty 15 spots ahead of Gronkowski.

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Injury concerns were certainly a reason, but not the only one. His official Draft profile said: “Does not have a great top-end speed and may not be able to stretch the field at the next level. Lacks the elusiveness to make people miss after catch.”

Nobody knew for sure if Gronkowski could beat defenses the way he does today. Would he be just a big target on short and intermediate routes? Could he be a great blocker against players as big as him?

We have our answers now, obviously. Gronkowski can do everything. The NFL is a quarterback league, which means the Super Bowl is a quarterback league, but it is almost impossible to imagine the Patriots winning unless Gronkowski plays well.

How does he do it? Garoppolo cites “his burst in and out of routes. Most big guys, it takes them a while to start and stop. He is really an offensive tackle with wide receiver speed.” Gronkowski’s enormous, powerful hands certainly help.

And then there is the work ethic. You really don’t see many great players with a mediocre work ethic anymore -- pro sports are just too competitive now. Gronkowski is known within the Patriots organization for getting to the facility early and staying there late, and for paying close attention to everything when he is there. Forget the public persona. Goofballs at work don’t earn Tom Brady’s faith.

It’s not just the hours, though. Gronk likes working. “This guy is a tremendous practice player. He goes extremely hard on every rep. He just goes,” says tight ends coach Brian Daboll. ​

Then there is the confidence. You can’t measure that, either, and you certainly can’t measure how much it contributes to his success. But if there is one common thread between Party Gronk and Playing Gronk, it is his how comfortable he is with himself.

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Nothing seems to bother him on the field, whether it’s a safety hunting him down or a ball he shouldn’t catch. That’s hard to measure, too. The NFL game is so fierce, and so brutal, and some players have the physical skills but can’t apply them in the moment. Gronkowski can.

About the only thing that ever bothers him is when his teammate and weight-room adversary, fullback James Develin, tells him “Your arms are looking a little small.” Develin says: “That kind of stuff drives him nuts.” It sends Gronkowski to do a few more arm curls.

All the work blends with his love of the game and his ability to process the game quickly, and it creates a football virtuoso. The greatness of Gronkowski is not as simple as it appears. There are some really big, strong, fast players on NFL benches. They don’t have his instincts or understanding of the game. They can’t make difficult plays in tight spaces under pressure.

Develin, who watched Gronkowski blow past the Colts’ secondary in the AFC championship game, says “He makes plays that, it’s like in high school, when somebody is far above and beyond the competition. That’s what he is able to do at the NFL level. Something overtakes him and he just goes off. He just goes crazy.”

You could ask him how he does it. But good luck getting an answer.